When it comes to any resolution to the Syrian problem, Turkey is at the center of it. After all, Syria’s largest land border is with Turkey. Most Syrian refugees are fleeing north or west into Turkey, and there can be no safe-haven unless, as in 1991 with Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey plays host to the forces that would protect it.
At the same time, Bashar al-Assad is in many ways a monster of Turkey’s creation. Sedat Ergin is Turkey’s foremost journalist, editor, and columnist. He is neither polemical nor easily cowed. Amidst Prime Minister Erdoğan’s war on the press (and anyone else who might criticize him), Ergin has remained un-intimidated, even as Erdoğan has maneuvered to muzzle him.
His column today is a must-read to understand not only the evolution of Turkey’s policy toward Syria, but also to understand how Erdoğan’s turn on Assad is based more on Erdoğan’s impetuous personality and less on principle.
Let’s go to the very beginning. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, much before the Arab Spring was seen on the horizon, had headed for very close and intimate cooperation with the Bashar al-Assad administration in Syria. This policy had reached, in the year 2009, such an advanced level that joint Cabinet meetings were held between the two countries and mutual visa restrictions were lifted. Also, the affectionate relations between the Erdoğan and al-Assad families somewhat warmed up the climate between the two countries. Interestingly, during this period, the AK Party government immediately opposed the United States’ efforts to put the brakes on its cooperation with the al-Assad regime – on the grounds that it supported terror.
More broadly, the lesson of Erdoğan’s Syria policy (and his Libya policy before that) should remind us how unwise it is to embrace dictatorships or to believe that words alone will convince them to reform.